By Carys Whomsley
The storm of protest and debate surrounding Ollie Robinson’s tweets is a tale of caution in the modern digital era. Views that the 27-year-old expressed in racist and sexist tweets posted almost ten years ago, before he found fame, were recently unearthed and were quite rightly reviled from all quarters. His resulting suspension from the team by the ECB became the subject of intense debate online, with the Prime Minister among those giving his views on the matter.
Even for those outside of the public view, this story highlights the need for us all to understand and analyse our own digital footprints. Individuals in the corporate world represent their organisations, and their views and actions should reflect the organisational culture and values. Social media posts, whether current or historical, that could cause harm or lead to suggestions of hypocrisy within a team or company, can lead to a person’s suitability for a job in the public sphere being questioned.
The resurfacing of historical social media posts: a growing trend with serious consequences
Such scandals around historical social media posts are most common in the worlds of sport and politics, where scrutiny and criticism are at their most fierce. In 2018, it emerged that the England women's football manager Phil Neville had posted misogynistic tweets back in 2012. They made for uncomfortable reading from a person poised to take on one of the biggest jobs in women’s football, and their resurfacing cast doubt on his suitability for the role.
Journalist and commentator Toby Young faced a similar backlash three years ago, when he was appointed to the board of a new university watchdog. His historical posts included tweets seemingly deriding disability inclusion in schools and demeaning working-class students, and his most controversial statements were reproduced across many leading UK publications. He was consequently forced to delete all but 8,500 of the 56,000 tweets he had posted, claiming that a “handful of things” he had written in 2009 had been “wrongly misconstrued”.
There are a growing number of examples from the business world too, among them the recent case of Alexi McCammond, whose decade-old racist tweets resurfaced in March 2021, soon after she was hired as editor-in-chief of Teen Vogue. After advertisers pulled out and readers and staff voiced protests about her suitability, McCammond resigned before she had even started in the role, saying her “past tweets have overshadowed the work I’ve done.”
The importance of understanding your digital footprint
Each of us has a digital footprint, often spanning decades, made up of our comments, photos, videos, quotes and posts across social media, blogs, articles, profiles and websites. Increasingly, when someone wants to find out more about you – whether prior to hiring you, investing in your business, or dealing with you in a professional capacity – their research includes looking up your online activity. In particular, anyone aiming to cast a shadow on your reputation will look to unearth historical or recent activity that is at odds with the image you or your business want to portray. Such information can be found astonishingly quickly and easily, and with the world migrating online and many people having time on their hands working from home during the pandemic, citizen digital investigators are on the rise. This is why it’s vital to know your digital footprint.
While the worlds of sport and politics invite particular scrutiny, this is now also increasingly common practice in business and finance. Senior executives who use social media should be aware of their own historical social media posts, whether on public or private accounts, including views which may not have been controversial at the time of posting, but now fall short of current mainstream views. Anything said online by an executive in the past, in a position at an old company, could very well come back to haunt them in a newly-appointed role. A historical tweet could directly conflict with the messaging their current employer is communicating to stakeholders.
Ollie Robinson has fully and unreservedly apologised for his posts, stating that he has sought to educate himself and has since matured as a person. Hopefully, his experience will be a catalyst for awareness training for all young sports people as they emerge into the spotlight from their teenage years. Senior business executives should also apply this to their staff and employees, to avoid their own companies coming under the spotlight. As the amount of online content each person produces increases daily, so will the scrutiny of our digital footprints.